Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

HOOVER -- Aairon Savage took to the podium at SEC Media Days on Friday wearing his orange and blue bow-tie, courtesy of his girlfriend Sharon, looking every bit the part of an assistant professor.

The one-time Westover High School star is old enough to be one.

Savage, an Auburn senior safety, is 23. His 24th birthday would come before participating in a New Year's Day bowl game, which the Tigers were fortunate enough to be a part of last season.

To put it into perspective how long Savage has been around The Plains is pretty simple.

He was recruited to Auburn by then defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. That's two jobs ago for Auburn's current head coach with the defensive coordinator stint at Texas and head coaching job at Iowa State.

When Savage redshirted in 2005, Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was head coach at Springdale (Ark.) High School. Incoming prized running back recruit Michael Dyer was in the eighth grade.

"It's a great story," Chizik said. "It's neat for me professionally. We're blessed to have young leadership and his persistence to fight through so many things that could bring you down. He's a great Auburn man."

Savage missed each of the last two seasons because of injuries (anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and Achilles tendon tear) and decided to stick around for that last opportunity to suit up.

"It's a blessing and we're going to roll with it," Savage said. "Before I decided to come back coach Chiz grabbed me into his office and said you don't have to tell me why you came back, but he said don't think about the injuries and don't think about the pros just enjoy this year.

"This means the world to me. I'm not the first guy to get hurt and I won't be the last. It's good to be an example for kids that you can have injuries like that and come back and play at a higher level."

Savage knows there are no guarantees in a crowded defensive backfield. He's competing primarily with Mike McNeil (who also sat out all of last season with an injury) for the starting free safety spot.

Just being an active part of the team again has been an inspiration.

"Aairon is determined and when you are playing football for so long it's hard to give it up like that," senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. "He made sure he's going to come back and be healthy for his last year of playing football. It might be a great year for him. He's the type of player who is going to be inspiring to a lot of guys who after a serious injury wanted to give up because he didn't."

Savage can't even remember the last game he played back in 2007 (it was as a reserve against Alabama at Jordan Hare in the Tigers' last win over the Crimson Tide).

In 2006, Savage was third on the team with 53 tackles, including a career-high 11 against Arkansas.

He was cleared for contact drills this spring but Chizik held him out of contact as a precaution. He said he is completely healthy, has his footwork down and has no hesitation with what he can do on the field.

"I'm stronger than in 2007 and I know a little more," Savage said. "How crazy would it be for me to sit on the sidelines for two years and stay the same as a player? That would be a waste."

Savage though is clearly different than the rest of the Auburn players.

He gradated with a degree in exercise science in December 2008.

He earned his master's degree in bio mechanics this summer.

He said teammates often joke with him about being old.

"It's really not as big as you guys make it," Savage said. "I try to teach them from my experiences show them the ropes and build a great foundation in football and life. It's really been a treat."

Savage doesn't want to think too far ahead to the first game. But his return to the field on Sept. 4 against Arkansas State is in the back of his mind.

"I couldn't even describe it to you what it might be like," Savage said. "But I can't get caught up in the hype because how selfish would that be. When I step on the field, it's going to be about Arkansas State.

"I just want to play hard every play, every game and the rest will take care of itself. The defensive mentality is the same. Hit and run and swarm to the ball. This defense wants to go from good to great."

Savage, who previously entertained becoming a chiropractor but now is leaning toward coaching, has an advantage over many of his teammates. Suffice to say, his class schedule will not be too strenuous.

Bowling, his passion, is one of his classes with remainder of his 12 hours yet to be ironed out.

"It's going to be fun," Savage said. "Like coach said, I'm treating it like a job. You rehab, get stretched out and watch film. It's easier to not have to worry about classes and studying for tests.

"There's nothing like football. It is kind of like we're modern gladiators. You don't get that feeling anywhere else to run around and hit people ... to inspire people ... there's no other way to get that feeling."